Tartan isn’t old fashioned – neither is it just for men

Tartan isn’t old fashioned – neither is it just for men

By: Emma Wilkinson Tartan designer at The House of Edgar
Published on:
  • Heritage

In this article, originally written for The National to mark our 100th anniversary, tartan designer Emma Wilkinson discusses being a young woman in one of Scotland’s most traditional industries, and the process of creating our 100th anniversary tartan.

At the heart of every tartan, is a special story – that’s what makes this cloth so unique. Tartan is so much more than a textile, it is culture, kinship, place, time, and belonging – it brings people together through simply colour and line. The Young Women’s Movement echoes exactly this so creating a tartan, on behalf of The House of Edgar for this brilliant charity, was a truly wonderful project to be part of.

The Young Women’s Movement is Scotland’s national organisation for young women and girls’ leadership and rights. Their history dates back to 1924 as YWCA Scotland and although they go by a different name today, they are proud of what they have achieved over the last century.

The Young Women's Movement 100 logo

Tartans are, at their root, a series of numbers that create a unique pattern. Hidden within The Young Women’s Movement tartan are numbers that celebrate 100 years of the organisation!  The colours are bright and vibrant, echoing the positivity of the organisation– this was an important aspect of the tartan design and allows it to stand out in a crowd of now thousands of registered tartans. I am proud to see a charity for young women sporting tartan, something that we generally associate with masculine highland dress in the form of kilts. It’s exciting to see more women embracing tartan and making it their own!

My own career has been all about preserving and respecting the past, while pushing this iconic textile forward into a promising and exciting future. I do believe in looking back, and understanding what has been and where it came from, in order to strongly move forward. My role at Macnaughtons allows me to do this every day, while working with our fantastic customers who are so passionate about the world of kilts and tartan.

Since graduating with a degree in textiles in 2018, I found myself disappointed at the lack of encouragement I received while studying to pursue a career in Scottish textiles – our rich and lasting history of textiles in this country ignored for being seemingly ‘old fashioned’. I saw past this criticism and since graduating, have not stopped working with and studying tartan. I started my career as a handmade kilt maker, learning how to hand weave in my spare time so I could understand tartan to the very fibres it came from. Now I am a tartan designer for The House of Edgar (the highlandwear division of Macnaughton Holdings).

Macnaughtons, like tartan, has a very long and rich history. Founded in 1783 by the Macnaughton family in Perthshire the business has stood the test of time! Known across the globe for the beautiful cloths we create, our tartans are at the forefront of the highlandwear industry. The head office remains in Perth, and our weaving mill is located further north in Keith. I am so proud to be a tiny part of the Macnaughtons team.

My niche choice of career has opened up so many opportunities, often in very male-dominated fields – from exhibiting alongside whisky distilleries to meeting HM The King; to appearing on television talking about our fascinating culture; to now being a Trustee of The Scottish Tartans Authority. I have carved out a small place for my work and have found, so far, that the voice of a young woman has been well received and, I hope, set a positive tone for a new and exciting chapter in this industry’s future.

A recent stand-out project in both my role at Macnaughtons and as a trustee has been the re-creation of the Glen Affric tartan – the oldest tartan specimen found in Scotland dating back to c.1500 – 1600. We brought this tartan back to life earlier in 2024, a piece of living history that people can enjoy once more today! I am proud to be, and hope to continue to be, a voice in the world of tartan for the rest of my life, because it’s so much more than just a job.

I am incredibly fortunate that lots of hard work, peaks and troughs and determination are paying off, and I get to design beautiful tartans that mean the world to people like The Young Women’s Movement every day!

Image of The Young Woman's Movement tartan, which has a yellow base and red and blue details

Call to action